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(2nd LD) S. Korea picks its first astronaut

All Headlines 13:59 September 05, 2007

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 3, 5; ADDS astronaut's comments from para 13)

SEOUL, Sept. 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Wednesday chose a 30-year-old computer vision engineer to become its first astronaut who will make a trip to the International Space Station on a Russian spacecraft early next year.

Ko san, a researcher at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), was selected over Yi So-yeon because he received higher marks in the extensive training program undertaken in South Korea and Russia since early this year, the Ministry of Science and Technology said. It said there was very little difference in the scores of the two candidates, which were tallied by a seven-person astronaut selection committee headed by KARI president Paik Hong-yul.

Ko will go into space with two Russian cosmonauts on the Soyuz spacecraft in April 2008 and spend seven to eight days on the space station orbiting the Earth, the ministry said. He is to conduct a total of 18 experiments as a payload specialist, checking the noise level of the space station, the effect of the weightless environment on the human body, and the impact of space on the growth of living organisms.

The ministry said Yi, a nanotechnology engineer at the KARI, will complete the rest of the training program so she can replace Ko if he is unable to participate in the planned mission.

It said both Ko and Yi are to undergo weightlessness training, instructions on how to operate HAM radios and helicopter rescue procedures in the coming months, along with Russian cosmonauts.

The two have undergone training after being picked on Dec. 25 from an initial 36,206 hopefuls.

The government is spending more than US$20 million for Ko and Yi's training, which it hopes will fuel interest in the science and engineering fields in South Korea.

South Korea ranked 12th in the world in scientific competitiveness last year as measured by the Switzerland-based International Institute of Management and Development (IMD). Seoul wants to raise the ranking to 10th by 2010.

The country is the 11th-largest economy in the world, but it has lagged behind other countries in space technology and in sending a person into space.

Since 1961, 34 countries including Vietnam, Mongolia and Afghanistan have sent 462 astronauts into space.

"The astronaut program is needed because it can provide vital know-how that can form the foundation of future development in this field," said Vice Science Minister Chung Yoon.

He also said the program will help the country get first-hand experience in the selection and training of future astronauts as well as enable South Korea to improve cooperation with Japan and European countries that are established leaders in this field.

Ko San said he will do his best to meet public expectations and help promote technological development in the country's space program.

As the country's first astronaut, the Busan native and graduate of Seoul National University said he wanted to combine his skills in computer vision with the building of robots for exploring other planets.

"There is a future for South Korea if it fully uses its strength in the information technology sector to enter niche areas not touched by leading space powers," he said.


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